Musical legends come in may shades of cool, from not at all to unapproachably awesome. And sometimes they come in cool shades, the way W.S. “Fluke” Holland did at Music City Roots this week. They were gold aviator specs that went ever-so-well with his amazing mane of white hair, not to mention his graceful, gracious personality. Guest host Peter Cooper, historian that he is, did a great job contextualizing Fluke for me and our audience, describing how Holland – a non-drummer at the time – lucked into the Carl Perkins band in 1955, basically because he could keep time and he had a car. Then the third recording session of his life produced “Blue Suede Shoes.” And the rest, as they say, is hysterical.
Fluke became the third man in Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three, putting him in charge of some of the most famous beats of all time. And he was there, playing drums, the day Cash and Perkins, Elvis and Jerry Lee ad hocked the one-time-only Million Dollar Quartet. So having Holland on hand just elevated an already charged evening. He was there to play behind a young fellow named Adam Pope, a North Carolinian turned Nashvillian (a rhyme that also fits your correspondent) who has a yen for that early Sun Records sound. He displayed a great feel for it in his set too, but a bunch of other stuff happened first.
Musical host Peter Cooper cooked up some fun with Jim Lauderdale at the top of the show. I hope it worked on radio because it was funny in the barn. Jim, who had just enough time before jetting to South By Southwest to basically appear for a minute or two, worked up a little drama in which Cooper had seemingly arranged to have his rival Jim tied up and gagged so that HE could host. Jim hopped on stage with legs and hands “tied” while Cooper tried to start the show. They made amends by singing “Halfway Down” together and Jim jetted off for the land of tacos and too many bands.
Those good old boys from Brooklyn known as YARN kicked off the lineup and did so with restraint – Blake Christiana’s rough and ready voice singing lonesome over a tom tom march. But the tune – “Hope For Better Days” – revved up into a train beat and rolled on to the horizon. Blake reminds me of the guys who used to check your oil back when they had service stations, right down to the rag in his pocket. His songwriting has the same regular guy touches. His growing-old-together ballad “Take Me First” showed huge heart, while “That’s Just Fine” was a great jam vehicle.
Benjy Davis has a strong history fronting his own successful touring band, but this night at Roots he was in solo troubadour mode, offering up songs about the complexity of love and life. His earthy, empathetic voice fit the material, and songs like “Give Up” and “Here I Go” showed a writer’s attention to form and detail. That set the stage for Adam Pope, working with Fluke Holland and a band of wily veterans who knew their country and rockabilly. Pope’s approach mingled his own writing with covers from Sun’s golden age. The song that got Fluke interested in working with Adam was “Shot In Reno,” which tells the famous Folsom Prison murder from the victim’s perspective. The audience showed their love with a standing O.
The first time I ever saw Darin and Brooke Aldridge in performance – opening for Earl Scruggs in Earl’s home area in Shelby, NC – they won my undying respect by covering Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” at bluegrass tempo with a hard chop, a banjo roll and high close harmony. I’ve been dying to see them do that one since, and at last, on this show, bingo. It’s a quirky, unexpected song to come out of this churchy-proper sweetheart couple from small town North Carolina. Their other cool cover in a strong set was the Nanci Griffith-penned “Outbound Plane,” a melody as swift as its aeronautic subject.
And that left it up to mighty John Cowan and band to fill the barn with his joyful noise. He hit us with the hit stick first, dialing up “Calling Baton Rouge,” the big New Grass Revival radio single that also became a Garth Brooks smash. “Six Red Birds In A Joshua Tree” was slightly exotic, with an arcing minor melody and space for a trippy fiddle solo by Shad Cobb. Actually Cowan brought twin fiddles for this show, pairing Shad with lovely Andrea Zonn, who also elevated the lustrous vocal front line. John swung gently on “Miss The Mississippi and You” and slid into home with the very new-grassy “Carry On.” Guitarist Jeff Autry played the fire out of that one over a shifty beat.
Peter led the chorale in a too-short Loveless Jam rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” with Fluke standing up to play his shuffle rhythm on a high hat. You got the feeling that 58 years or so after being that fluke-ish non-drummer drummer, he knew what he was doing.